One Guy One Night

the bar looks empty, but it’s definitely full of it

Mike Paulus

There were not many people in the bar, I remember that. And if I’d been the one on stage, I’d have been disappointed. But seeing as I have no musical ability and the stage presence of a drowsy wildebeest, I am not one to talk.

I’d seen the band a few times before, as my one local musician friend thought they were amaaaazing, and he showed up to every show. Yes – they were fun to watch. They usually did a cover of the techno cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” and I’m a sucker for that special kind of musical mess. When they played, you could tell they were having a blast. No one was dragging me along.

The band – which was huge, with at least eight people stuffed onto the stage and way too much equipment – was an earnest bunch of kids. Some of them were still in high school, and it seemed as though, as long as they had this stage in this bar tonight, they were gonna damn well make something of it. You’d think they were playing in front of packed-n-sweaty house at The Bowery Ballroom.

These kind of touchy-feely moments are rarely my thing. If you’re going to embrace your bandmates, en masse, do it during the final bow. But actually, don’t do a final bow. Unless you’re U2 or Aerosmith or Beyonce’s backup dancers or ... Queen.

It was getting late and they were in the middle of a long, jam-riddled song of their own design. The entire thing boiled down to one guy playing piano for about five minutes. He was really good, but the whole band gathered around him and put their arms around each other as if they were closing their last, hours-long show after a marathon North American tour. Like I said, they were taking advantage of their stage time. Back then, it was one of the most popular venues in town. When was this going to happen again?

I cringed a little. I’m Midwestern Mike, and these kind of touchy-feely moments are rarely my thing. If you’re going to embrace your bandmates, en masse, do it during the final bow. But actually, don’t do a final bow. Unless you’re U2 or Aerosmith or Beyonce’s backup dancers or ... Queen. Just don’t do it if you’re a band of barely graduated high school kids in a bar in downtown Eau Claire with about 20 people listening. No matter how good you are.

So the piano solo was rolling on and a smattering of fans near the stage had fallen silent, staring up, lost in the magic. My friends and I were listening. Despite the Up with People vibe, I liked it. I liked how much the band liked it. The rest of the room was pretty much invisible to them, and that’s cool to see.

But there was a guy.

This one guy standing at the bar, pushing 40, had absolutely no clue as to what the hell was happening around him. I doubt he knew real, actual, live music was blossoming on stage 20 feet to his left. He had not showed up for The Show. He had showed up to get buzzed and blather at a pair of his lady friends.  

The lady friends were perched on bar stools, and they absolutely had a clue as to what the hell was happening. As the guy boisterously slurred, the ladies tried to hush him down, with nervous laughter, stealing glances at the otherwise quiet audience.

To recap: Epic piano solo. Sincere band. Quiet bar. Drunk dude positively on fire with clever quips for the ladies.

I don’t know how this guy became aware of his surroundings. Maybe his friends finally got through to him to shut up. But even then. Even when the only sound in the entire building was a furiously heartfelt piano player. Even when every eyeball in the bar was focused on the stage. Even then, he had no idea there were actual live musicians at work.  

He closed one eye and leaned back. Bewildered. He swiveled from left to right and back again. Perplexed. Then, like some lazy preacher, he raised both arms, and hollered out, “What’s the matter? Isn’t this a bar? Come on, make some noise!”

Come on, make some noise. He was a drunk donkey kicking over a curio cabinet crammed full of French horns and jars of marbles. He was gale force awkwardness.

He was a howling black hole of dirty looks.

Midwestern Mike over here cringed a super-cringe. Realizing no one was going to make him some noise, the guy shrugged and got back to drinking. The song spiraled to a close. We all clapped, finished our beer, and floated on home.

I wish every local show was so packed with people the old brick walls of the bar would buckle and split. It can’t always be that way. But here I am remembering a hardly attended performance from more than 15 years ago, because somehow it’s totally gummed into my brain. It was a good show. If I had been the one on stage, maybe I’d have been disappointed.

But I was in the audience. And I have nothing but gratitude for everything I heard that night.

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